Redacted: Zinke and Team Still Have a Ways To Go Before “Full Transparency”

It’s been quite a week for Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Yesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported it couldn’t determine whether or not Secretary Zinke broke the law in his calls to Alaska Senators last summer because Interior refused to cooperate. Earlier today Interior’s Office of the Inspector General announced a review of Secretary Zinke’s involvement in his family’s sweetheart land deal with a Halliburton chairman that would personally enrich him and his family. In total, Secretary Zinke has been the subject of at least 14 known open or pending investigations, including the Halliburton sweetheart land deal and his use of a private email account to conduct official business.

Despite this corruption-fueled news barrage of the last few days, Secretary Zinke’s press secretary Heather Swift claimed that the Secretary “adheres to all applicable laws, rules and regulations” and that he “goes above and beyond mere technical compliance and strives for full transparency.”

To the contrary, Western Values Project found several instances where Secretary Zinke and his Department were less than fully transparent, including newly released original public records analysis revealing that Secretary Zinke had email contact with the much criticized CEO of Whitefish Energy in the days after Hurricane Maria and that Interior’s communications leadership is interfering with the department’s fulfillment of public records requests.

Six of Interior’s most recent troubling instances of lacking transparency:

  1. Interior Press refused to discuss why the Whitefish Energy CEO was emailing Secretary Zinke after Hurricane Maria.

CNN reporter Rene Marsh was working on a story relating to “Secretary Zinke and his familiarity with Andrew Techmanski, the CEO of Whitefish Energy.” Marsh asked, “Did the Secretary work with or communicate with Techmanskis in the aftermath of the hurricane?” Heather Swift responded “No. The gentleman [Andy Techmanski] sent an email but there was not action taken on it (no reply, forward, discussion, etc).” She continued, “Not for a statement, just for your context – The secretary’s phone number and email address have been published multiple times over the years so he gets a lot of emails/cold calls/letters.” Rene Marsh responded, “Thank you. What was the gentleman (I assume you mean Mr. Techmanskis?) requesting in the email that you mention?” to which Heather Swift responded “there was no action taken on it.” See their full exchange here.

  1. Interior leadership makes agencies hold on fulfilling public records requests until Secretary Zinke’s spokespeople give their approval. Interior is currently being sued over this practice.

In July 2017, Interior Press Secretary Heather Swift made the National Park Service wait to release Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) results related to Secretary Zinke’s visit to Channel Islands National Park until Interior Communications Director Laura Rigas could sign off on their release. The records of the FOIA request were “related to the Secretary’s visit to Channel Islands NP.” The records were already overdue at the time that Swift asked NPS to hold on releasing them.

Environmental groups recently filed a lawsuit demanding Interior respond to their records requests. The lawsuit alleges a “‘culture of secrecy’” and that “Interior policies reportedly require agency officials to review FOIA documents before they are released.”

  1. Secretary Zinke redacted the meeting he had in his office with Halliburton private developers from his public calendar. Interior’s office of the Inspector General is now reviewing the potential for an investigation into Secretary Zinke’s involvement in the land deal.

Last week, released documents revealed that last August Secretary Zinke had a meeting in his official office and gave a Lincoln Memorial tour to private developers, including the chairman of Halliburton, while the developers were engaged in a land deal with Secretary Zinke’s wife that stood to enrich Secretary Zinke’s family. However, Secretary Zinke’s original calendar had a record of the meeting, Lincoln Tour, and subsequent dinner, but for all three the participants had been redacted. After the unredacted calendars were revealed, Members of Congress called on Interior’s Office of Inspector General to investigate Secretary Ryan Zinke’s potential use of taxpayer resources in advancing the land development project.

As of this morning, June 28, 2018, Interior’s Office of the Inspector General announced they were looking into investigating Secretary Zinke’s involvement in the land deal backed by the Halliburton chairman.

  1. GAO can’t determine whether or not Secretary Zinke broke the law in his calls to Alaska Senators because Interior refused to provide adequate information.

In June 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that it couldn’t issue an opinion on whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated the law the previous summer when he called and reportedly threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan after Murkowski voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act. Secretary Zinke allegedly warned the Senators that Murkowski’s vote would result in negative consequences to public lands policy in Alaska. However, according to GAO, Interior “‘did not provide… any information on the substance of the telephone calls.’” As such, GAO lacked “‘the requisite facts on which to base a legal opinion.’”

  1. Interior is making false claims about how long political appointees have been employed there.

Former Iowa political operative Charles Laudner is now working in a position at the National Park Service. In May 2018, Interior Press Secretary Heather Swift said Interior had hired Laudner “‘a few weeks ago.’” However, based on Interior’s publicly available calendars, it looks like Charles Laudner has been working at Interior since at least November 2017. Why would Interior make this false claim?

  1. Zinke flashed his MAGA socks, violating the Hatch Act.

During his recent trip to the speak at Western Governors’ Association in South Dakota, Secretary Zinke took time out to pull up his pants and flash a new set of signature ‘Make America Great Again’ Donald Trump socks. The problem is that just three months prior to this exposé, on March 5th, the Office of Special Council issued a memo with updates on Hatch Act guidance as Trump has confirmed that he will be running for a second term. The letter said in part, “While on duty or in the workplace, employees may not: wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ or any other materials from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns; use hashtags such as #MAGA or #ResistTrump in social media posts or other forums; or display non-official pictures of President Trump.”

Our conclusion: Scandal-plagued Secretary Zinke and team, we think you may still have a little ways to go before you’re “fully transparent.” And, be on the lookout for that famous line from the hit NBC show The Apprentice.

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